After about 5 months of driving in Vancouver on the opposite side of the road to the one I’ve been driving on for years, my cerebellum is slowly being reprogrammed to understand that the turning signal is now where the windscreen wipers once were (in that ‘other’ dimension of my life) and vice versa.
Yes, you guessed it – there have been many occasions where those windscreen wipers have been activated on a clear, sunny day by mistake, the car suddenly standing out in the streamlined Vancouver traffic like a streaker at the opera!
Thankfully, there haven’t been any literal head-on incidents whilst driving, but there were a selection of hairy moments in the first few weeks where I was left absolutely discombobulated when my instincts to look in one direction were proven useless, detrimental even. Everything I’d known, all my unconscious patterning, had to be brought to the surface and let go of, which wasn’t a particularly easy feat.
How do you re-program something that isn’t even conscious, and yet is so ingrained?!
One of my concerns has been my great difficulty intuiting the exact width of the vehicle, specifically the right hand extremity. I often imagine the right hand mirror flinging off as I accidentally side-swipe parked vehicles! Yet when I have a passenger accompanying me they often advise me that there is plenty more space on that side than I’d thought.
On the other hand, my previous (other hemisphere) car felt like an extension of my own body: I knew it intimately and the exact space it occupied in the world. It was like my modern-day, magical armour.
Having clocked up rather a few long drives out to the Vancouver suburbs for rehearsals with my band and some weekends away in Whistler, I was beginning to feel that I really had the hang of this right-side kinda life. Even though I sensed that I was never going to feel that it came to me automatically, I was becoming more comfortable and relaxed, snippets of the sort of ease that pervaded my driving experience in those colonially-conditioned conventions of the roads in the left-hand country of my upbringing.
That was until the sun finally came out in late May, and I joined the local, outdoor, salt-water pool in Kitsilano, a spectacular, 150-yard, open-air masterpiece which adorns the beachside and allows its swimmers to take in the glorious mountains, city scape and water in all their magnificence, as they periodically turn their heads during some of the longest laps of front-crawl possible on the planet.
After learning that the pool was heated (my sub-tropical, Queensland blood will never quite be able to hack diving into an outdoor pool if the air temperature is below 20 degrees celsius, which it often is in Vancouver) I bought a very reasonably priced monthly pass and made my way to the pool’s edge on the first day, bolstered by the warming sunshine (for which I have a new appreciation and adulation) and the memories of my years’ swimming at school or at the Sydney University pool in my 20s.
I found the gaggle of swimmers milling at the lane’s end, most chatting or resting on either side of the ‘keep clear / passing lane’ and some of the stronger ones pounding out their 40th lap or so like beasts, churning water as they turned fearlessly directly in the middle of the ‘keep clear / passing lane’ which probably should have been named ‘beasts and olympians only lane’.
I was a little confused by the lane system in this gargantuan pool, or rather the lack of lanes. There were 2 black lines which framed the central ‘beast’ lane, and an arrow beside each line directing traffic to flow in the anti-clockwise, right-side direction. Unlike other pools I’d swum in in my non-beastly swimming history, there were no other lane markers or bobbles to delineate the slow and fast lanes, or the swimming section in general from the lolling populous.
What’s more, the very Canadian (as in all-inclusive, welcoming, unperturbed) vibe of the lifeguards seemed to lend itself to the lolling populous occasionally floating into the swimming lane by mistake, and no one particularly caring, not even the ‘beasts’. I wasn’t very used to this sort of swimming freedom. It made me a tad nervous because I wasn’t sure that I could trust myself not to run into people (which makes sense considering my head-on tendencies as previously described, and the addition of my goggles which had fuzzed up a little over their years of non-use).
It is always refreshing though to be faced with the gentleness and humility of the Canadian culture. It’s a soothing and satiating energy that runs through these people and this land, and fuels a society who’s principles embody ancient truths of existence that many other people and places in the world seem to repeatedly or conveniently forget. Canada is like the quietest revolution of humanity. Of course their lanes had no borders!
Buoyed by yet another example of Canadian fabulousness, I stepped down into the 27-degree, salted, chlorine oasis, adjusted my fuzzy goggles with a good ol’ bit of my own spit, and jettisoned my body off the wall and into the unknown realm of the expansive and borderless swimming lane.
My freestyle rhythm started out strong, and I felt the years of growing up in a beach culture literally mesh each stroke together like a perfect jigsaw.
Well…for the first 40 metres or so. Then my body started to tire a little from the lack of practice and the lactic acid weighing down my limbs. My breath started to labour so I switched from breathing every 4 strokes to every 3. Breathing on my left, less dominant side had always been a little more trouble than on my right, just like the new driving experience. I always feared that my ears would fill with water for some reason. This sort of distracted thinking probably tired me out even more and by the time I’d reached 50 metres I bobbed my head up, treading water, to ascertain how far I actually was from the other end.
I wasn’t even half way! I threw myself back at the freestyle which was by this stage looking very free indeed. Not much style was going on there, I’m afraid.
The worry about the ears filling with water was overshadowed by the worry about my ability to even make it to the other end of the pool without needing the assistance of one of the unperturbed life-guards. In fact, I thought, they probably wouldn’t even notice me in their relaxed appraisal of all things pool, so perhaps I wouldn’t even survive! (You know by now, dear readers, that I most definitely have a penchant for the dramatic.)
Before I had a chance to explore these existential thoughts any further, I felt the whoosh of a blanket of bubbles settle over me, somewhat warm and comforting momentarily, and then realised that I had encroached upon another swimmer’s space who was moving a little more slowly just a metre or so in front of me.
My first instinct was to pass on the right, but another, newer instinct arose which was to not trust my instinct because it was somehow not as dependable in this new world of mine, or it hadn’t been in the driving. I was in a panic. Which side was the passing side? Which way was right?
While this flurry of thoughts whipped their way through my mind, the whoosh of water had now transformed into a tornado of multiple fuzzy and bubbly white walls, their intensity so great that I knew I was milliseconds away from making full body contact with my neighbouring swimmer in some ugly head-on chlorine choreography.
I also could no longer see anything in my periphery so I couldn’t tell if there were any other swimmers approaching on either side which may have given me a clue as to which side to pass on. In the end I just stopped dead and raised my head up out of the water, like a baby whale who had missed the memo titled ‘how to swim’.
In a strange sort of way this incident reminded me of a train trip I’d taken up north with my mother, brother, aunt and cousins when I was little. We’d been careening along at high speeds through the lush Queensland hinterland, on our way to Hervey Bay to see the humpback whale and their calves (plenty of ‘how to swim’ memos circulating there), when the train suddenly stopped and the driver announced that there was a slow-moving beast (aka a cow!) on the tracks and that we’d have to wait for it to move before we could be on our way.
There was indeed a slow-moving beast in front of me in this very moment.
Once I’d done the full stop and looked around for some guidance while my legs treaded water like egg beaters, I noticed a few others passing on the left further down the pool.
Ah yes…the left. The fast lane in this new land!
And then I was off.
I haven’t looked back since (literally). My swims have been a lot smoother and I’m happy to report that my resilience is increasing. I no longer need to stop in the middle of the pool or wonder which way I should pass the other lovely beasts in the pool, or them, me.
I believe I’ve been reprogrammed. Yes, it’s possible people! The unconscious need not run us forever. It doesn’t have to. It’s absolutely possible to change, in any given moment.
Of course the downside of this reprogramming is the inevitable conundrum I’ll face when I actually return to driving or swimming or running in those places in the world where the right side is the right one to pass on, the speedy side. But from my own experience, its often easier to go back to old habits than it is to break in new ones, so I’m not worried.
It’s the breaking-in, the going forward that I’m more interested in for the moment, though.
What about you?
Have a sparkling day, my friends.